List Essays, 25 Things, Writing Prompts

In my last blog post, I mentioned a list essay, “25 things, post-election version,” by my friend and MFA classmate, writer Noria Jablonski, originally published as a note on Facebook the day after the election. I deactivated my Facebook account over the weekend (enough with all the cacophony!) so I can’t link to her note, but with her permission, I have shared it with both of my classes and also used it as the basis of a writing prompt (explained after Noria’s words). Here’s her list:

25 things, post-election version   //   Noria Jablonski· Wednesday, November 9, 2016

  1. Normally I shy away from posting anything too personal, but this time isn’t normal.
  2. A year and a half ago I was diagnosed with MS.
  3. My professional life came to an abrupt end.
  4. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I currently have access to health insurance.
  5. The medication I take to slow the progression of my disease costs $65,000/year.
  6. A drug that has been used for years to treat cancer and rheumatoid arthritis recently showed promise for treating MS. That drug was not brought to market because the patent was about to expire.
  7. I have profound hearing loss.
  8. Hearing aids are not covered by most insurance companies (hearing aids are considered elective).
  9. Healthcare should not be driven by profit motive.
  10. Neither should education.
  11. I became a teacher to help young people find their voices.
  12. I became a writer to find mine.
  13. “…it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature…literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear.” – Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill”
  14. On a Saturday night the spring before last, I suddenly lost vision in my left eye. Everything went dim, grainy, colorless, as if the brightness, contrast, and color knobs had been turned all the way down.
  15. A few days later my right leg went numb.
  16. Before MRI machines, a hot bath test was used to diagnose MS (heat worsens neurological symptoms).
  17. On a trip to Paris several years ago, I visited the library of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, who is most famous for his study of hysteria.
  18. Charcot was the first to give a name to multiple sclerosis: “la sclérose en plaques.”
  19. Sclerosis means hardening. It refers to scar tissue formed by lesions of the brain and spinal cord.
  20. Nothing is in my control.
  21. My body feels unsafe. I have been hurt physically and sexually.
  22. “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.” – Cersei Lannister
  23. My parents were Sufi. Sufism is a branch of Islam.
  24. My given name is Arabic. It means light of womanhood.
  25. I am not a terrorist.

Writing Prompt: inspired by two list essays: Noria Jablonski’s “25 things, post-election version” and my essay, “Things People Said: An Essay in Seven Steps”:

What are some of your acts of resisting invisibility? Write a list of 25. Include specific numbers when possible. Here are some phrases and ideas to get started. Remember this is just an option and you are welcome to freewrite in response to the Adrienne Rich quote (which I included in the previous blog post) or either of the list essays.

—Something someone said to you

—A year and a half ago,

—I have

—I became

—Normally,

—Before

—On a trip to…

—a quote from a writer, a song, a person

—I am

—I am not

—My parents

—A few days later

—On a Saturday night

The Personal Is Political

“The moment when a feeling enters the body / is political.” —Adrienne Rich, “The Ghazals”

“How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?” —Claudia Rankine, from Citizen

11/22/16: SOTA teacher Bradley Craddock with SOTA students and Willa and me after our workshop.

11/22/16: Teacher Bradley Craddock with SOTA students, Willa, and me after our workshop (Photo by SOTA Teacher Marcy Gamzon)

This morning, poet Willa Carroll and I co-taught a creative writing master class to high school students at the Rochester City School District’s School of the Arts. Willa is a proud alumna of the school and I often wished, while growing up, I had also been a student there. Happily, I’ve been able to be a part of the larger SOTA community through the many alums I have as friends and acquaintances—and these master classes.

Willa Carroll, 11/22/16

Poet Willa Carroll, 11/22/16

Willa and I last visited SOTA as guest writers in June of 2014 (here’s my blog post about that visit). She and I have known each other since high school and it’s been rewarding to continue our friendship through writing and our various moves for school and work.

We focused today’s reading and workshop on “political writing”—writing the political, and thinking about the relationship between what is personal and what is seen as political. Willa and I both chose to frame our readings and writing exercises with words by, among others, Adrienne Rich, a groundbreaking poet, public intellectual, and second-wave feminist. The phrase, “the personal is political,” was important to me as a writer, particularly in college, when I came further into a feminist consciousness I had only begun to articulate in high school. I just googled “the personal is political,” and Wikipedia offered this handy history and context for the phrase:

The personal is political, also termed The private is political, is a political argument used as a rallying slogan of student movement and second-wave feminism from the late 1960s. It underscored the connections between personal experience and larger social and political structures. In the context of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, it was a challenge to the nuclear family and family values.[1] The phrase has been repeatedly described as a defining characterization of second-wave feminism, radical feminism, Women’s Studies, or feminism in general.[2][3] It differentiated the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s from the early feminism of the 1920s, which was concerned with achieving the right to vote for women.

The phrase was popularized by the publication of a 1969 essay by feminist Carol Hanisch under the title “The Personal is Political” in 1970,[4] but she disavows authorship of the phrase. According to Kerry Burch, Shulamith Firestone, Robin Morgan, and other feminists given credit for originating the phrase have also declined authorship. “Instead,” Burch writes, “they cite millions of women in public and private conversations as the phrase’s collective authors.”[5]Gloria Steinem has likened claiming authorship of the phrase to claiming authorship of “World War II,”[5] although the invention of the phrase “World War II” can in fact be traced to a Time editorial published in September 1939.[6]

The phrase figured in women-of-color feminism, such as “A Black Feminist Statement” by the Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde‘s essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, and the anthology This Bridge Called Home. More broadly, as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw observes, “This process of recognizing as social and systemic what was formerly perceived as isolated and individual has also characterized the identity politics of African Americans, other people of color, and gays and lesbians, among others.”[7]

Before beginning my reading, I mentioned that there have been a handful of events in the last fifteen years, which have shaped the direction and ideology of our country. In my opinion, these events include 9/11, the rise of ISIS and the Syrian refugee crisis, and our most recent presidential election. The election showed me that the most misogynistic, racist, and incendiary speech and behavior by a presidential candidate not only did not take him out of the running—it likely helped elect him. This shocked me. And also that some Americans were likely not OK with a female president. Much more to say about that, but back to our workshop, which we began to plan before the election (and its results).

Willa read the two quotes at the beginning of this blog post. Before getting into my lesson on “making the invisible visible” and using forms such as lists as a writing prompt, I read a short excerpt from Rich’s essay, “Invisibility in Academe”:

When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul—and not just individual strength, but collective understanding—to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard…to make yourself visible, to claim that your experience is just as real and normative as any other.

I think this is an incredibly powerful passage and one I’ve come back to again and again over the last 20 years.

2016-sejal-reading-sota

Sejal Shah (photo by Willa Carroll).

We then looked at “25 things, post-election version,” a sort of  list “essay,” which my former MFA classmate, Noria Jablonski wrote and posted on Facebook the day after the election. I also read my lyric / list essay, “Things People Said: An Essay in Seven Steps,” which was published in September in Brevity’s special issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization.

Student Writers Hard at Work

SOTA Students writing hard, heads bent, pens moving.

A couple of the students shared their list exercises, and they were wonderful. The SOTA students were lively, focused, and wrote terrific responses to the four writing exercises we brought to them—even on the day before Thanksgiving Break! Speaking of thanks, we are thankful to have been able to return to work with these talented writers. Thank you also to teachers Marcy Gamzon and Bradley Craddock for hosting us, and to Friends of School of the Arts for sponsoring our visit.

Commonplace Books & Other People’s Words, Post Election

fullsizerender-6On the recommendation of two of my students in the advanced memoir / creative nonfiction class I’m currently teaching, I recently went back and finished Mary Karr‘s excellent The Art of MemoirIn Chapter 19, “Old-School Technologies for the Stalled Novice,” Karr suggests keeping a commonplace book: “a notebook where you copy beloved poems or hunks of prose out. Nothing will teach you a great writer’s choices better. Plus you can carry your inspiration around with you in compact form.” She includes other great exercises—memorizing poems, writing reviews, and augmenting a daily journal with a reading journal.

I first came across the term “commonplace book” on a former colleague’s syllabus. Martha and I taught at Marymount Manhattan College, and she showed me her syllabus for Narrative Fiction (English 180?), the introductory literature class I would also be teaching. I loved the idea of this—a reading journal.

Both Karr and poet & editor Mark Pawlak, with whom I read last week, mentioned the practice of keeping a commonplace book, and I feel inspired to keep such a book apart from my regular journal—right now they are combined in one notebook so unless I go back to my journals to flag and cull excerpts from what I’m reading, I sometimes lose those copied out passages. In fact, I wrote out the following quotes from Karr’s book in my journal last week. This post will be a kind of online supplement to my commonplace book—I’d like to try doing that and see if it feeds my writing and teaching at all—making some of this commonplace book visible and available. Ideally, it would also be a potential resource for other writers or my students, but also a resource for me to look back at what I found interesting or inspiring. Here are some of her words that struck me.

From The Art of Memoir:

No matter how much you’re gunning for the truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle. Start trying to bring yourself to the page and fear of how you’ll come off besets even the most forthright. The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision. (153)

In her chapter on revision (Chapter 24: “Against Vanity: In Praise of Revision”): “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” —quoting Mark Twain

She also quotes from G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology (on 217):

I have never done anything ‘useful.’ No discovery of mine has made or is likely to make directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world….Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil, and outside mathematics it is trial anyhow…I have added something to knowledge and helped others to add more; and these somethings have a value that differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them.

I’ll add one more quote, not from Karr, but rather from Rebecca Solnit. My friend Gail Hosking showed this to me (pasted into her journal), when I mentioned I’d been crying earlier in the day—still stunned over the results of the election.

The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning rather than a consumer of meanings that may be at odds with your soul, your destiny, your humanity, so there’s another kind of success in becoming conscious that matters and that is up to you and nobody else and within your reach.

This helped, to see what Gail had copied and pasted into her journal. I shared Solnit’s words with my students last night too, all such devoted and inspiring writers themselves. I felt better after reading and discussing their thoughtful work.

I’m sharing a couple of blog posts by writer friends, which also helped to deal with the helplessness, despair, and mourning that engulfed me and so many of us this week.

Upcoming: Spring Yoga & Writing Workshop

I’m looking forward to leading my next mindfulness retreat, a Yoga & Writing workshop with yoga teacher Erin Garvin at Midtown Athletic Club in Rochester, NY on Sunday, April 17th, 2016. Past participants’ comments have highlighted how valuable and restorative they have found these workshops. I love teaching them. 2016 is the fifth year that I’ve taught or co-taught a writing & yoga workshop.

Our day-long retreat will integrate motion and reflection, nurturing spring’s natural inclination towards metamorphosis. All levels of yoga are welcome; no writing experience is necessary. For more information or to register, visit here.  For more on my path of how I came to teach these workshops, click here to read an article in the UMASS Amherst alumni magazine.

Poster image for Yoga & Writing: A Mindfulness Retreat   Photo of Sejal Shah teaching a Writing & Yoga workshop

The Kenyon Review & Some Thoughts on Work and Writing

Screenshot of the Kenyon Review
As of this February, I’ll be blogging twice a month for the Kenyon Review. My first post developed out of a question and conversation excerpt I posed on Facebook:

Does it matter to you if your life and work are legible to others?
Family Friend to me: “My husband told me you are not teaching at _______ School. So you are not working?”

What ensued was the most vital comment thread on my wall in months. My post explores this question about work and writing, and also meditates on my favorite poem by Marge Piercy, “For the young who want to.” Click here to read the post. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments.

What You Did Do (Celebrate It!)

IMG_8136

My friend, the wonderful nonfiction writer Wendy Call, and I discovered while on a self-styled writing retreat at her house in 2012 that stickers (stars and smiley faces) are as effective as they were in first grade for motivating ourselves to get whatever writing tasks done on a given day. Rewards! Stickers! They work.

A few years ago, I returned from three months in India feeling completely lost. I was between jobs and had just moved back in with my parents. My friend Marijana suggested devoting a weekend to next year’s goals. We spent the weekend drinking tea, writing, eating, and making lists. Lists work. Before thinking about goals for the coming year, we took stock of the previous year.

Resolutions are vague—be kinder, eat healthier, get more sleep, spend more time with family, put writing first—and there is something about resolutions that make them seem predetermined to fail. Partly it’s the lack of metrics—how do you measure if you are being kinder? (Ask your mom or your spouse, I guess.)

When I was a full-time professor, I dreaded writing annual reviews. However, I’ve come to realize the value in reviewing how you spent your time. Looking over your year helps you to collect what you have done, and therefore see what you still want to do.

I’m aware of what I didn’t finish (thank you notes from our wedding, revising my first book, etc.), but I lost track of what I did. Here’s my list. I hope it might inspire you to make one, too. Revel in what you did accomplish!

2015 Year-in-Review (Accomplishments)

  1. Persistence / Book Review. I wrote my first book review last year; the publication I had in mind turned it down, but (this time) I didn’t let my writing sit in my hard drive. I sent out it out again, right away, and the review was published last summer.
  2. Writing & Yoga. I solo taught my first Writing & Yoga workshop. Though I completed yoga teacher training in 2009, prior to this workshop, I taught only the writing component. In 2015, I brought what I had been doing in my own yoga practice and drew from mindfulness exercises I had adapted to the classroom when I was teaching high school (sitting meditation, gratitude lists—see, I love lists—, freewriting, a choral reading of a poem, some stretching and gentle movement.
  3. Teaching Writing. I co-taught my first writing workshop with Creative Nonfiction Writer Gregory Gerard. I began teaching writing 20 years ago, but this was (incredibly) my first time collaborating with another writer on teaching a writing workshop together. I love how much you can learn from observing how others teach.
  4. Community Building & Literary Citizenship. I organized a December Literary Meet Up that drew fifteen or so writers, professors, teachers, & readers. Forging connections and community locally is important to me. Last fall I also learned how to create a calendar document in the ROC City Lit Meet Up Facebook group that I started two years ago (over 200 members now). It’s been rewarding to host a community calendar & virtual space that members can add to and edit — a central place to house the many readings and literary events in Rochester.
  5. Conference Presentation. I presented a paper on the lyric essay that was challenging to write at NonfictioNOW, a Creative Nonfiction conference held in Flagstaff, Arizona last fall. As I am no longer an academic, I wondered if it was worth the investment of time and money, but I met other writers, went on a much-needed hike in the Southwest, saw old friends, and learned from the panels. The conference energized me, for sure.
  6. Shout-Out! Hyphen Magazine asked 10 Asian American writers to recommend other writers / writing to read. Poet Matthew Olzmann picked out my essay, “Thank You.” Thank you, Matthew!

What my 2015 Review clarified: I had not worked on my book in a consistent way—and that is concrete a goal for 2016—to finish it and move on to my second project. Sure, I was busy: I got married, moved, changed jobs, had caregiving responsibilities for my grandmother. Still, I had not made progress on a writing goal that is a priority to me.

What are your goals for the year? Have you written them down? Do you have them in a place where you see them? Workshops can be an effective way to take time out to write down and to mindfully reflect on your goals and how you are spending your time.

I am co-leading a day-long writing & mindfulness retreat on Sunday, April 17th at Midtown Athletic Club in Rochester with yoga teacher Erin Garvin. This retreat will be an opportunity to do some mental spring cleaning and reflect on your intentions for the spring and summer. (Link forthcoming; please email me for more information.)

To have some extra structure and support around doing this work earlier, if you are local, I recommend signing up for Marijana’s terrific workshop, “Your Wild and Precious Life,” which leads you through personal writing, clarifying your goals, and creating action steps to reach them. Our goals are reachable if we keep them in mind and keep inching toward them on most days. (Baby steps. They work!) I wish us all forward movement and momentum on our goals & intentions in 2016.

One Year Ago Today

One Year Ago Today

IMG_2835

Last year this time: a row of wheelchairs outside my grandmother’s room.

Facebook has this function called “One year ago today,” which revives, dredges, or resuscitates (any of these verbs apply depending on the subject matter) a post from your past year—something that happened on that particular day. But there are some dates we don’t need reminders for.

This time last year was the time following my grandmother’s stroke. I remember very little of this week last year except the snow, my relatives here from California, and our going back and forth to the hospital and Jewish Home in shifts, so that someone from the family, someone who spoke Gujarati and loves my grandmother (Ba), would always be there to interpret, to press the call button (difficult if you have had a stroke), to smooth her hair, to give her spoonfuls of thickened water, to help her to the bathroom.

I don’t look back at this time last year with any fondness. However, I realized this week that it is also the anniversary of the time I also spent a few days of my winter break writing, at the invitation of my friend Mary Jane Curry, a professor at University of Rochester, at the Warner School of Education’s Winter Writing Camp. I met MJ through a yoga class (yoga always brings good people to my life), and we had talked before and after class for a couple of years.

At the retreat, which I just attended again this year, we (professors and grad students and me, a former professor and current writer) met in small groups to talk about our writing projects (I was working on my first book review, on Amarnath Ravva’s hybrid memoir, American Canyon). We wrote for 45 minutes on, with a 15 minute break (if you wanted to break) and then another 45 minutes on, etc. The Warner School professors organized the schedule, lunch sign up (this year, we had boxed lunches from Panera), and made sure that we kept on task.

I talked again this year with Marium, who this time last year was writing her dissertation. She finished it last year, and credited the momentum she gained and a few techniques she learned in the winter writing retreat with helping that happen. (She was also very disciplined, blocked out large amounts of time, wrote a lot, and socialized not at all, except for seeing her husband and daughter.  I asked her what it took to get the diss done.)

My grandmother was released from stroke rehab at the Jewish Home in February of last year. Next week is her 93rd birthday. She is living with my parents and aunt 10 minutes away from me. I finished that book review. Not a dissertation, but managing to complete it between teaching 9th graders, planning a wedding, and time spent every day with my grandmother at the Jewish Home, was an accomplishment for me.

I had forgotten the camaraderie of writing together, of writing groups, and of yoga. I remembered that even in the midst of that stressful time, I felt happy about meeting other writers at UR and offered to lead them in some stretching and meditation breaks, which is what I had been doing with my ninth graders. Whatever grade we’re in, we can use yoga and meditation, and we can use community. We can stand to stretch. (I don’t want to count what grade I’m in now.  Life Grade. Middle-Aged Grade.)

IMG_2843

I took a long walk with R during that time last year, and was struck by the pond that had developed in front of this house–giving us the mirror image, the house under the house, the world under this world. That was the world into which we’d stumbled.

Facebook also offers you a look at “2 years ago today.” Here is a quote I posted two years ago via the website Tiny Buddha: “When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life.” (~Eckhart Tolle).  That sounds right to me.